The Landscape For Educational Publishing

Also read: The future of textbooks in modern learning

In this intensely busy month for the education sector, we look at the present and future landscape of educational and academic publishing. From the advent of digital learning formats to the challenge presented by open educational resources, this piece aims to focus on some of the issues that are making the industry tick.

Over the past few years, education has been transformed. From primary school to university, digital formats are being embraced across the board. In simple forms, printed editions are now available online and in eBook format. But learning has gone much further, with the advent of interactive educational games, online portals, and mixed media courses.


Opportunities in the digital age

As with many other industries, publishing has experienced profound and unsettling changes in the wake of the digital revolution. There have been times when many have considered the possibility that the book may not have a future at all, as the world becomes ever more dominated by the internet.

Thankfully, that notion appears to be unfounded but, even so, the publishing industry has evolved considerably over the past decade and the balance is continuing to shift towards digital products in every walk of life. Whilst this has been far from painless, there are amazing opportunities for publishing houses who can adapt and thrive.

Also read: Spotlight: The future of bookshops in the modern age


Educational publishing

For educational publishers, the changes have been particularly moving. Unsurprisingly, it’s a challenge for the printed dissemination of knowledge to keep up, especially when digital learning is emerging as such a strong contender. Whilst many concepts and theories are evergreen, education is most effective when it’s applied to timely news and events. This has taken hold more acutely in the past decade.

Changing consumer behaviours and the further integration of technology in the classroom (and at home) has created new learning experiences, and whilst this gives publishers a wealth of angles, it also requires some serious adaptation.

Whilst some have struggled, there are plenty among educational publishers that are looking to embrace fresh opportunities offered by the digital age. What’s evident is a willingness to look at business practices anew, and focus on how to protect resources in the new reality.

To make the most of the possibilities offered by an increasingly connected world, publishers have had to evolve. The new environment demands that businesses have the agility to understand and meet ever-changing customer needs, whilst addressing unforeseen problems as they occur.



Education should be fun. It should also be relevant to those consuming it and, whether we like it or not, failing to embrace digital ways of working is to risk compromising that relevance. The days of working exclusively with hard copy are arguably behind us. In the near future, most learning materials will have an online or digital component.

For this reason, educational publishers have ramped up to offer high-quality educational materials in the form of downloadable software and web-based applications. These learning tools can be accessed on tablets, mobile devices, and desktops. Education can be brought to life in new and exciting ways, enhancing the learning experience. Combined with traditional curriculum-based teaching methods, students and educators now have instant access to interactive tests, tasks, games, and more.

Just one innovative example was created by our client, Macmillan Learning. The team has seen huge success with the online learning platform, LaunchPad.

Others, too, have vastly increased their portfolio of digital learning materials. Heinemann has developed a reputable online environment for their professional development materials, and Cengage Learning has emerged as a digitally-orientated educational publisher making waves in the industry.

In March 2016, McGraw-Hill announced that their digital unit sales outperformed print for the first time. The biggest player, Pearson, has been pushing its position in the market somewhat aggressively, not without criticism or controversy. Regardless, Pearson’s transition to a digital focus has been highly impressive.


Distance learning

Digital publishing and interactive education allows for greater use of distance learning, and this brings its own dramatic advantages. Teacher and student no longer need to be in the same room. In fact, they can be thousands of miles apart, meaning children in remote areas can learn without travelling, and those who have difficulty leaving home can still access a high-quality education.

It also means that highly specialist skills can be easily shared across continents, revolutionising fields such as science and medicine.


Virtual reality

Virtual reality is a particular opportunity for educational publishers. This technology can be used to provide immersive experiences within the educational realm. Whether for kids learning history and geography in schools, or for professional development later in life, VR can be used to construct models of historic settlements, human anatomy or simulate complex interpersonal situations.

Also read: Virtual Reality: The potential for publishing and more


Risks in the digital age

The most obvious risk for educational publishers is through unauthorised sharing of materials and copyright infringement. Use of installed packages lessens these risks but web-based programs are more susceptible. Companies embracing these methods will have to give considerable thought to their licensing criteria.

This involves using databases to manage usernames and passwords, plus complex communication lines between different platforms and business systems.

Note: Middleware such as WSO2 simplifies the management of data between websites, online learning platforms, and your CRM and marketing automation tools. Data integrity is essential for digital products, a fact that often gets overlooked. For more information about managing the back-end of your online portals and web-based learning environments, contact Ribbonfish today.

Also read: WSO2: A game-changing middleware


The open movement

Indeed, many educational products are designed to be freely shared. The open movement believes in making knowledge freely available, so similar products may be released in a form that’s difficult to compete with in the normal way.

It would be foolish for any publisher to underestimate the power of these open source products. It may be easy to dismiss such grassroots and self-published materials as inferior products, but all too frequently these innovations find their
audience among those poorly served or denied access to commercially published materials.

Also read: What is EdTech?

For this reason, it’s easy to see how freely available content can quickly become subject to further collaboration and peer reviews over time. Right now, open source knowledge is becoming common currency within those communities that traditionally struggle to access expensive printed texts, thus bringing further challenges as well as opportunities to traditional publishers down the line.


An Introduction to OER (Open Educational Resources)

Giving a standard definition for Open Educational Resources (OER) can be difficult to do. It’s in the very nature of the concept that they can be, essentially, whatever you want them to be.

Broadly, the term OER is used to refer to learning materials made freely available to anyone who has an interest in them, to consume, share and modify. Whether you’re a student, a teacher, self-learner or just an interested amateur, these are resources available for you to use without cost.

The concept of OER is one that has grown up alongside the digital revolution. These materials are usually made available in digital formats and propagated worldwide to be used in lieu of textbooks and other traditional printed materials. This, of course, has a knock-on effect for those who are commercially involved in the textbook industry. We’ll explore these issues a little later in the piece, so please do read on.

Naturally, OER has not developed in isolation. It is part of the tradition of open source and open knowledge resources that have been booming within the wider open movement that has arisen since the last years of the twentieth century. Most such materials are created by individuals and communities that see benefit to themselves and society as a whole in doing so.


The origins of OER

Open Educational Resources can trace their origins back to the early nineties when educators first began to realise the potential of sharing digital materials around a range of learning situations, in order to spread access to knowledge more widely and affordably, whilst circumventing the costs of the print industry.

It quickly began to develop in the context of the free-sharing and peer collaboration philosophies that emerged at the same time. After all, let us not forget that the internet, as originally envisaged, set out to disseminate learning materials for the common good. The commercial businesses came to the party much later.

The term ‘Open Educational Resources’ itself was first adopted by UNESCO in 2002 to further the impact of higher education in developing countries, and has subsequently stuck as a broad term for any freely available, electronic educational materials.


Advantages of OER

So why has OER taken off the way it has? Of course, everyone likes free stuff. But it’s not quite this black and white, in truth.

OER is a way of empowering many of the most disadvantaged people in society. All people need is internet access and, from there, knowledge is free.

There are also huge advantages for distance learning. Even in more developed places such as the Australian outback, geographical remoteness has traditionally hindered learning, but the ready availability of OER bridges gaps that would otherwise require time and fuel. Just see this profile of The School of the Air, on the Australian government website, to better understand the needs of these areas.

Then there’s the cost and flexibility. Traditional educational materials are protected under copyright laws, but the intellectual property contained in OER is much more flexible. This can make use easier, plus material reproduction that wouldn’t normally be permitted with a printed textbook. OER are dynamic materials that can be modified and changed over time as those who interact with them grow and update them.


Critiques of OER

Amid all these worthwhile benefits of sharing OER, there is a downside. Whilst these resources are undoubtedly advantageous to the remote and the under-privileged, the free access principle is a challenge to those trying to operate for profit.

An official release by the International Publishers Association, they outlined their position on OER and its threat to commercial publishing.

“We recognise the beneficial role that OERs can play in our mixed media environment and in some specific educational environments. We are sceptical however about the capacity of OERs to provide high quality content in core curriculum subjects in the longer term. An over-reliance on OERs will endanger the quality of school level education until a number of challenges related to extensive use of OERs are addressed, especially sustainability, quality, and efficacy. There are also issues associated with public funding of OER development.”

The release talks about challenges to sustainability, quality, and efficacy. As a considered contribution by one of the most important publishing industry bodies, the article makes for interesting reading. You can access it in full here.

Another interesting commentary on OER came from Jose Ferreira, CEO and founder of Knewton. In this article, he says;

“Could free content at scale, distributed for free, break the textbook industry? In a word: no. There are limitations to OER that offer the textbook industry ample room to add value in a post-OER world.”

He cites three main points to support his view;

  • Low production values
  • No instructional design
  • Not enterprise grade

Undoubtedly, these free materials don’t make life any easier for educational publishers who’ve already been through the mill in recent years. In short, many believe that businesses are directly challenged by the popularity of open educational resources. However, there’s huge appetite among the publishing heavyweights to adapt and use them positively.

By way of countering this situation some publishers, such as McGraw-Hill, have surprised many by beginning to actively promote OER materials. The specifics being that they’ll integrate OER with their own learning products and platforms, to provide a wider range of materials within their own paid-for portfolio.

Back in 2012, Pearson unveiled an OER search engine, enabling users to find free content, as well as their own commercial products. This project has morphed into Collections, which allows educators to create custom course materials from various Pearson products.

Amazon’s foray into OER has caused quite a stir in recent months, which was explored in this excellent article by Neal Goff on Book Business Magazine. Essentially, it looks like Amazon is staking a claim to become the source of OER.

Overall, the commercialisation of OER raises some ethical questions given its principle of free access. Naturally, time will tell as to the areas in which publishers will monetise in future, but it’s clear that OER is here to stay, and will continue to be part of the conversation.


What next for educational publish

The global economy has been unstable in recent years, and this not only affected businesses, but governments and local authorities too. Cuts in education spending will continue to provide an extra challenge for educational publishers in particular.

In a fascinating interview with Reuters, Pearson Education’s John Fallon outlined some of the key issues facing the publishing giant, including fractious political disputes in the USA and slow-recovering key markets. These are obstacles in front of the whole industry, and ones that many large and small publishers must overcome to thrive in the current climate.

A report by the Publishers Association highlighted the enduring role of educational publishers in the delivery of high-quality learning.

“A healthy educational publishing industry is a vital asset to any democratic society and an essential element of a competitive, knowledge-based economy. Publishers produce the tools that teachers need to deliver effective learning and to raise academic standards in the classroom…

Successful implementation of curriculum change requires well-crafted, up-to-date resources produced by content creators who are experienced in curriculum development and teacher consultation. Educational publishers are best placed to develop these resources and ensure that they are available when they are needed.”

In 2014, McKinsey on Society published an article about the future of textbooks, in which the authors highlighted better learning outcomes from the incorporation of digital resources. Within the piece there’s a stark warning to publishers relying solely on printed textbooks, and this extract summarises their thoughts on the value of digital;

“The larger opportunity for publishers lies in the creation of dynamic digital-learning resources. Many publishers already are creating adaptive exercises, digital text with interactive graphics, audio, and video, and desktop simulations of everything from chemistry experiments to taking a patient’s pulse.

Early evidence suggests these digital tools can improve educational outcomes. Dropout rates fell to 14 percent from 31 percent after adaptive digital tutorials were introduced in a first-year engineering-mechanics course at Australia’s University of New South Wales. Similar tutorials have helped boost pass rates in other entry-level courses by an average of 18 percent at Arizona State University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, according to data that we compiled from university websites, Knewton and Smart Sparrow.”

It’s the common consensus that educational publishing faces huge disruption by the digital revolution, an unsteady economy, and the free open access to high-quality learning materials. The biggest players are adapting, but there’s understandable challenges in doing so.

In a 2013 blog post, author and professor of education, Bernard Bull, gave his viewpoint on the changing landscape;

“One of the greatest risks is the publisher that underestimates what I believe to be the disruptive innovation of open source, grassroots digital content collaboration, and self-publishing. Dismissing these as of inferior quality is the classic response of a company that is getting ready to be disrupted.”

Ribbonfish are technology experts for the publishing industry. Our solutions help publishing houses to improve internal processes, enhance sales and marketing, and ensure data integrity across departments. For more information about our services, get in touch today.


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